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We just want to say one word to you: Plastics.

In 1967, when that bit of advice in “The Graduate” was forever embedded in popular culture, plastic had a limitless future. It still does: Plastic produced 50 years ago is still around, and will be just about forever because it doesn’t decompose. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller bits. Plastic waste, large and small, has become embedded in every environment on Earth, harming wildlife. But it’s especially insidious in the world’s waters.

A clump of plastic garbage floats just off the shore of Lake Michigan.
A sea star found by Shedd researchers in the Bahamas sits on the sandy ocean floor with a plastic chips bag stuck to its rough body.

The cost of convenience

Plastic is undeniably the wonder material: It’s cheap and versatile, and it is ubiquitous where we live, work and shop. But each year, an estimated 8.8 million tons—tons—of the stuff winds up in the global ocean. Sea turtles choke on film bags, which they mistake for sea jellies; albatrosses feed colorful but fatal pellets to their chicks; and gray whales ingest a whole array of indigestible plastic flotsam. In fact, 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed each year by plastic through ingestion, starvation, suffocation, infection, drowning, or entanglement.

As this plastic trash breaks into smaller and smaller particles, it can eventually turn seawater cloudy—a phenomenon called plastic smog—and block sunlight needed for photosynthesis by phytoplankton and algae, the foundation of the marine food web. These microplastics also resemble plankton and are eaten by tiny invertebrates and fish larvae, some of the most basic foods for marine wildlife. In addition to having zero nutritional value, the plastic bits can bind with any toxic molecules present, such as BPAs (found in plastic straws) and carcinogenic PCBs. These toxins bioaccumulate in animals’ tissues and then work their way up the food web in increasing concentrations, including up to the seafood we eat.

Getting to the source

More plastic has been produced in the last 10 years than during the last century. That’s nearly 380 million tons of plastic every year.

Much of it goes into single-use products. You know the stuff: straws, Styrofoam cups, grocery bags, lighters, disposable diapers and the ubiquitous plastic beverage bottles. Americans down 1,500 bottled waters every second. We use 500 million plastic straws a day.

On average, we each toss about 185 pounds of single-use plastic products a year. Despite the fact that plastic bottles, and their lids, are almost universally recyclable, about 70 percent—35 million bottles—wind up in garbage dumps every year.

Plastic and foam debris floats in the waters of Lake Michigan, visible from the edge of a pedestrian path bordering the lake along Chicago's skyline.
Plastics litter the cracks in a rocky beach in the Bahamas.

(Recycling offers a serviceable but limited loop of use and reuse, mainly through “downcycling,” or repurposing plastic fibers into different products. Recycling can help keep existing single-use plastic out of the environment, but it doesn’t offset the escalating production of new disposable products from virgin plastic.)

Unlike beverage containers, the often-accompanying plastic straws are nearly impossible to recycle because of their complex composition: a petroleum byproduct called polypropylene mixed with colorants and plasticizers. (It sounds unappetizing and unhealthy.) One use and they’re in the trash container and then in a landfill. And then, all too often, into a body of water near you.

Eighty percent of those annual 8.8 million tons of ocean plastic can be identified as coming from land-based sources. A plastic straw dropped during a picnic at 12th Street Beach can be lapped up by Lake Michigan and swept up through the rest of the Great Lakes, along the St. Lawrence River and out to the Atlantic Ocean, where it can choke a fish, seal, seabird, or sea turtle.

Nickel, a rescued sea turtle, swims in Shedd's Caribbean Reef habitat with overlaid text that says "#SheddTheStraw for sea turtles."

The last straw

There is a solution: Recycle what you can and reduce your use of what you can’t. 

For Earth Day this year, Shedd challenges the Chicago community to #SheddTheStraw. We took the first step: We’ve removed plastic straws from our cafés as part of an organization-wide commitment to reduce single-use plastics in our operations. We also provide recycling receptacles for our guests and our employees. Our reduction of single-use plastics is reflected in the decreasing amount of plastic we recycle each year: from 2.79 tons in 2013 to .85 tons last year. So far this year, we’ve only generated .07 tons—140 pounds—of single-use plastic to recycle. Our efforts were recognized by the Illinois Recycling Association in 2015, when we received its award for the outstanding non-profit recycling and waste reduction program.

Join us in making the aquatic environment cleaner and safer for the animals we love. Take a pass on the plastic straws provided with your cold beverages. Suggest paper straws at your favorite coffee or snack shop. And if you love using straws, you can invest in a reusable one. 

We can each do our part to reduce plastic pollution because when we throw away plastic, it doesn’t go away. From the wave of the future, single-use plastics have become a tidal wave of trouble. But it’s a problem we can solve together.